Who gets legal aid, anyway?

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Note: The Legal Services Society is now Legal Aid BC.

A woman comes into a legal aid office asking for help — she wants her husband, who no longer lives with her and the kids, to stop harassing her. She explains that he makes threats, and while they were still living together, he assaulted her and wouldn’t let her see her family or get a job. She took the children to a woman’s shelter. Now her husband is threatening to hurt her and take the children out of BC.

She can’t afford a lawyer but needs help. Would she be able to get legal aid? This eNews describes legal aid services currently available through the Legal Services Society (LSS) — the provider of legal aid in BC — for both family and criminal matters in Provincial Court.

Family law assistance
Would LSS provide the woman with a free lawyer to go to Provincial Court to request a protection order against their partner? The answer is yes. Legal aid is available for serious family law cases where violence or threat of violence is involved — for anyone whose income is within LSS’s financial guidelines. All legal aid representation and advice services are only available to people with low incomes.

The Legal Services Society also offers family duty counsel services at courthouses around BC. They provide legal advice for things like parenting time, child support and court procedures. Family advice lawyers at provincial Family Justice Centres and Justice Access Centres, and the Family LawLINE phone service also provide legal advice and help for people going to court without a lawyer.

Coverage for family law matters has been limited over the years, however a recent increase in provincial funding means LSS was able to restore some family law coverage that had been eliminated.

While there is no legal right to family legal aid, the courts have interpreted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to mean that parents may have a right to a lawyer if government (in BC, the Ministry of Children and Family Development) wants to remove their children from the family home for their protection. This is why LSS also provides lawyers to represent parents whose children have been taken — or are at risk of being taken — into foster care, for the whole time the government is involved.

LSS has another service for child protection cases. In Vancouver and Surrey — and soon in other locations — the Parents Legal Centre helps parents resolve child protection matters early and collaboratively.

Where appropriate, the centre’s lawyers provide legal advice and representation for collaborative processes and uncontested hearings. The centre’s advocate/paralegal helps parents get services related to the child protection matter, such as better housing or help with addictions, which increases the chances a child can stay with their family.

In 2018/2019, LSS plans to open new Parents Legal Centres in Campbell River, Smithers/Hazelton, Williams Lake, Prince George, Kamloops, Duncan, and Victoria.



Criminal law assistance
Here’s another typical scenario: say police charge someone with assault or theft over $5,000 — would they get legal aid? Yes, if their income meets LSS’s financial guidelines and they face a criminal charge with a real risk of a jail sentence, they will get a free lawyer to represent them in court. Low-income people charged with a crime will also qualify for legal representation if they face a conditional sentence that would severely limit their liberty, or if found guilty they could lose their way of earning a living, or if they face an immigration proceeding that could lead to deportation.

There are also criminal duty counsel at provincial courthouses across BC to assist people with bail hearings and provide legal advice about criminal charges, court procedures and legal rights. LSS also provides duty counsel at First Nations courts.

Why is there assistance for people who are charged with committing crimes?

It’s because of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says people at risk of going to jail may have a right to a lawyer — this ensures all people are treated fairly by the justice system even if they can’t afford a lawyer.

This is only a snapshot of legal aid services related to Provincial Court. LSS also has a wealth of free public legal information available at courthouses and online. These resources will help people understand their rights and responsibilities under the law, and describe what legal aid can do — and cannot do — for people with legal problems. To discover the breadth of legal aid services, see the LSS website.

See too previous eNews articles: Legal Services Society’s Infographics – effective, engaging legal information and Legal Services Society publications explain Aboriginal legal rights.